Absolutely Scrabulous

Wednesday, 16 January 2008 — 3:53pm | Scrabble

Hasbro and Mattel (who own the rights to Scrabble in North America and Everywhere Else, respectively) have jointly requested that Facebook remove the popular Scrabulous application; here’s a more thorough and disgruntled look. As someone who’s done his homework on the occasional legal absurdities surrounding his favourite sport, I am—how did Palahniuk so crudely put it?—Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

I’ll say a few things regardless, since this will be the first direct encounter with said absurdities for most people who play Scrabulous. Remember, kids, it’s not Scrabble—it’s the SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game.

The first question that came to mind: why pick on Scrabulous when plenty of free online services like the Internet Scrabble Club are left unmolested? (I’m told that ISC has been threatened with legal action before, but I haven’t noticed anything.) The simplest explanation is probably that ISC doesn’t make money, whereas the incentive to develop for Facebook, apart from convincing all of your friends to swim in useless widgets, is that its advertising model generates revenue. Zombies and pirates run amok in millions of profile pages because after all these years, people are still trying to scrape a few pennies off the Web.

To be fair, I think most Facebook developers—Scrabulous creators Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla included—create their little projects because they’re fun and useful. They’re in it to provide utility. And that’s true of most independent software developers in general, which is why open source has made such a big splash. But for an application as popular as Scrabulous, the revenues are on the order of $25,000 a month—piddling in corporate terms, but tremendous on a personal balance sheet.

Another illustration: in the past, Hasbro has mostly turned a blind eye to the cottage industry of custom Scrabble products. In the competitive circuit, virtually nobody uses a Hasbro or Mattel board out of the box; they shell out for superior custom products by craftsmen like Ossie Mair (known for his lightweight lucite fold-up boards) and Sam Kantimathi (designer of the tournament-standard clock, the SamTimer). I still use a trusty wooden board with a beaded turntable by longtime Calgary player Ross Stevenson, which has been in my possession since high school.

However, if you look at the product catalogue on the National Scrabble Association website or the one in their quarterly newsletter, you’ll only ever see Hasbro products. And at sponsored tournaments like the National Scrabble Championship/U.S. Open, a constant source of frustration for players is the mandate that everyone use a standard Hasbro board—because good heavens, we can’t let the television audience of the six o’clock news know that alternatives are out there.

When it comes to a service like Facebook, it’s not surprising that both Hasbro and Mattel would take notice. Notice how the Internet throws quite a wrench into their territorial arrangement of rights: Facebook is based in the United States, but the Scrabulous developers are from Calcutta—and my understanding (as someone who’s dabbled a bit in Facebook development) is that when it comes to these applications, all of which are actually hosted off-site, Facebook merely provides an API and a lot of exposure. To put it more plainly, when you develop for Facebook, you’re initially writing your own application hosted on your own website. It’s none of Facebook’s business—they just provide the tools. Where Facebook comes in is when you request that your application have access to their user database, or that it be integrated into user profile pages. As Facebook users know, that level of integration is the basis of an application’s appeal in the first place, and the very reason why one might choose Scrabulous over another online service like ISC.

Once it grants you those privileges, Facebook retains the mechanism to shut you down—and it does have criteria for doing so, as explained in the Platform Application Guidelines and Terms of Service. To explain by analogy: it’s kind of like how Nintendo games are developed all over the world, but Nintendo’s regional branches act as gateways that control what can be legally sold for their system.

So whether Hasbro and Mattel can do this is not in question. Of course, someone with a better understanding of intellectual property law might correct me on this; I’m informed that where trademark infringement is concerned, there is a precedent worth examining in the Anti-Monopoly lawsuit. As far as whether or not these companies can assert ownership—well, read what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about games and decide for yourself.

The idea for a game is not protected by copyright. The same is true of the name or title given to the game and of the method or methods for playing it.

Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in the development, merchandising, or playing of a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles.

Some material prepared in connection with a game may be subject to copyright if it contains a sufficient amount of literary or pictorial expression. For example, the text matter describing the rules of the game, or the pictorial matter appearing on the gameboard or container, may be registrable.

It’s still a stupid move, legal issues aside: the rights-owners can only stand to benefit from new players, and—as someone on the tournament players’ mailing list put it—”Scrabulous has brought the largest ever single influx of new players and potential customers to the game.” There’s a spike in interest, and yes, it’s quantifiable.

What should be interesting to watch is whether or not the rights-holders intend to move into the Facebook space with an application of their own. The best-case scenario is some kind of settlement whereby Scrabulous is repackaged as something official. This is what Hasbro has traditionally done with the CD-ROM and downloadable editions of Scrabble for the PC: they have always been built around a free, existing AI developed by other individuals (Brian Sheppard’s Maven, or more recently, Jason Katz-Brown and John O’Laughlin’s Quackle).

The objection has been raised that the same kind of deal can’t happen with Scrabulous because of the recent licensing deal in which Hasbro gave Electronic Arts the digital rights to the game. I’m not sure if this is actually an obstacle, as the terms of the deal would probably be limited to certain platforms, and definitely only pertains to distribution in certain regions. The fact that Hasbro gave the digital rights to EA in a certain space doesn’t prevent Hasbro from licensing other partners to develop Web applications, unless it’s in the terms of the contract. Without knowing the terms myself, I’m unable to comment further. The bigger obstacle, I find, is the usual territorial confusion between Hasbro and Mattel.

My problem with the official Scrabble products—which remains a concern with respect to any officially licensed Scrabulous replacement—is that they tend to exclude the “offensive” words from the lexicon in the same way the Scrabble dictionaries in your brick-and-mortar bookstores do, though it’s encouraging that Mike Baron’s wordlists, which are now officially published as the SCRABBLE Wordbook, remain up to tournament standard. And this doesn’t seem to be a problem over in Mattel-land, where Ubisoft got into a spot of public-relations trouble last October when Scrabble DS suggested LESBO.

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5 rejoinders to “Absolutely Scrabulous”

  1. What a great summary of the situation, I shall put a link to it from my blog.

    Wednesday, 16 January 2008 at 4:45pm

  2. Jim

    Baron sold out – the latest Scrabble Wordbook is expurgated. Bob’s Bible (http://wordbooks.homestead.com/) is not.

    Wednesday, 16 January 2008 at 7:47pm

  3. Damn, damn, damn. Well, I still have Baron’s OWL1 book, so I’ll just have to keep using my handwritten errata for all the new words until I get a new Bob’s Bible. (I study almost exclusively off Zyzzyva these days anyhow, and that’s when I study, which is… less occasional than I’d like to admit.)

    Wednesday, 16 January 2008 at 10:08pm

  4. Woah. Big Scrabble fan here. I just joined ISC – thanks to this site.

    Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 1:56am

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